J.P. Craig is Associate Professor of English for the W.E.B. DuBois Honors Program and the Department of Languages & Literatures at Alabama State University. He is a contributing editor for Stirring and Reconfigurations. He co-edited NANO Special Issue 11: “Economies of the Gift in the Age of Austerity” and was co-translator of the exhibition catalog Josef Mikl: The Satirical Work (De Gruyter, 2018). His essay “For Keeps: H.D. and the Negativity of the Gift” recently appeared in volume 43 of Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.
Contact: [email protected]
Book Review of Poetic Salvage: Reading Mina Loy by Tara Prescott
Reviewed by J.P. Craig
Published December 2019
Poetic Salvage: Reading Mina Loy by Tara Prescott. Bucknell University Press, 2017. pp. 292. $95.00 (hardcover), $39.99 (softcover), $38.00 (ebook).
About midway through Tara Prescott's Poetic Salvage: Reading Mina Loy, I was inspired to tweet a quote from Loy: “May your egotism be so gigantic that you comprise mankind in your self-sympathy.” A friend and fellow literature professor quickly replied, “That’s the first thing I’ve ever read from her that I could understand.”
Even among poetry lovers, Loy has a reputation for impenetrability. Her poems are a Modernist’s modernism: their mode, from which Ezra Pound coined the term “logopoeia,” plays with perplexing multivalent syntax and often abstruse or idiosyncratic vocabulary (See, “Marianne Moore and Mina Loy.” Selected Prose 1909-1965. New Directions, 1973. pp. 424-25.). Add this to her invisibility—her work seldom appears in anthologies, and when it does, she’s generally represented by the same few relatively well-known works—and you have a poet who is in need of salvage.
This is all the more true because Loy’s topics—women’s struggle for equality, the indignities heaped upon the poor, the disillusionments of aging and loss, the challenges of new art—are as relevant today as when she was writing. So there has been, since the women’s movements of the 1970s, an ongoing attempt to revive interest in her work. Among the important works to emerge from this revival are Carolyn Burke’s Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy and The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy (FSG 1996 & 1997, respectively). Yet, as Prescott notes in the opening of Poetic Salvage, there has yet to be a volume of close readings of Loy’s poetry, the sort of thing Prescott tells us would be helpful to new readers of Loy’s poems.
That Prescott’s book has been published at all is a significant event. It is only the second monograph on Loy, coming almost forty years after Virginia Koudis’s Mina Loy: American Modernist Poet (LSU 1980). And it is a timely publication, arriving during a renewal in interest in Loy’s work, as can be seen in the award-winning website Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde, the recent Mina Loy, Twentieth-Century Photography, and Contemporary Women Poets by Linda A. Kinnahan (Routledge 2017), and the Beinecke Digital Library’s online release of the Mina Loy papers. Because Prescott’s goal is to provide “the last foundational piece that readers need in order to grasp Loy's poetry,” she has split the body of Poetic Salvage into four main sections following the sections of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, in order to help readers more easily read her interpretations alongside Loy’s poems (xxi).
So, like Roger L. Conover’s 1997 edition of Loy’s poems, Poetic Salvage is divided into four broadly biographical sections covering the stages of Loy’s writing career, and Prescott has used Conover’s section titles as her own. The first section of Poetic Salvage, “Futurism x Feminism: The Circle Squared,” contains a single chapter, “Women in Space and Time,” which treats about half the poems collected in that section of The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Notable among these treatments are her readings of the short sequence “Italian Pictures” and Loy’s oft-anthologized “Parturition.” Both of these treatments, like most of the readings in this chapter, forego discussion of futurism’s impact on Loy in favor of her reaction against patriarchy in general. Though Burke’s biography is very helpful in connecting Loy’s time in the both stifling and libertine English expatriate community in Florence to “Italian Pictures,” Prescott goes further in linking Loy’s biography to line-by-line readings of “Italian Pictures” to reveal the claustrophobia and revolt invoked in Loy by early 20th century gender normativity. Prescott’s reading of “Parturition” is even more helpful because it contextualizes the poem in the economy of reproduction confining women like Loy. By establishing Loy’s frustration that woman’s worth was determined either by virginity or the ability to bear children, Prescott thickens the alternately alienated and orgasmic account of childbirth given in “Parturition,” revealing how Loy’s uses of scientific terms and frank descriptions of bodily fluids build to an understanding that childbirth is not merely about a woman’s “body and its reproductive capability, but also her consciousness and its ability to span worlds and time” (35).
The second section of Poetic Salvage, “Songs to Joannes,” takes up the poem sequence of that name, offering in-depth readings of three of its thirty-four sections (Song I, Song III, and Song XXVIII). Again a single chapter, “Pig Cupid and Psyche,” this section offers examples of Prescott at her strongest. Introducing “Songs” as a sequence of anti-romantic modern sonnets, Prescott follows up by demonstrating how the “plasticity” of Loy’s “multivalent words” combines Loy’s interests in science, spirituality, and erotism (66).
Her reading of Song III [https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/love-songs-section-iii ] is particularly effective. She shows how the poem’s references to “broken flesh,” “profane communion table,” and “promiscuous lips” play with both Catholic and Anglican language for the Eucharist while simultaneously proposing sexual union as a similar or even superior sacramental union: “the couple ‘might have’ ‘broken flesh with one another,’ they might have confessed their sins and consumed God, and they might have had vigorous sex. [. . .] As the possibilities accrue within the poem, the reader wonders why the ‘might’ never became an actuality” (67). Prescott connects the strange apotheosis that “might” have resulted—“a butterfly / With the daily news / Printed in blood on its wings”—to a later occurrence of a similar image in Loy’s mixed-media assemblage No Parking (1950) in which an angelic bum watches a butterfly fly up from a garbage can. Being made of trash itself—sardine tin opener body and discarded paper cup wings—this butterfly is a “dirty, earthly creature that nonetheless can fly,” revealing for Prescott the poem’s primary feeling of “romance devoid of moralizing” and the entire sequence’s suggestion that “love can be a base communion and a divine affair” (68, 68, 71).
The third section of Poetic Salvage, “Corpses and Geniuses,” contains three chapters. The first of these, “Portrait of the Poet as a Young Artist,” shows how Loy’s multifaceted career in arts, crafts, and poetry is intertwined with her relationships with her friends Constantin Brancusi, Wyndham Lewis, and Joseph Cornell. This chapter begins with Loy’s efforts to support herself by applying her art to commerce—designing lampshades, children’s blocks, or whole new industrial materials—and moves to extended readings of Loy’s ekphrastic tributes “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” and “‘The Starry Sky’ of Wyndham Lewis.” The concluding section of the chapter meditates on Loy’s poems celebrating nonconformity and artistic genius, “Lunar Baedeker” and “Apology of Genius,” as well as on Joseph Cornell’s “Imperious Jewelry of the Universe,” which takes its title from Loy’s poem of that name.
The next chapter in this section, “Loy’s Coterie,” offers close readings, including consideration of variant versions, of poems celebrating James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, exemplars of the sort of genius Loy celebrates. The final chapter in this section, “Exilic Travels,” considers the poems in which Loy addresses loss, the personal loss of her husband Arthur Craven and the losses of WWI, including an extended reading of “Der Blinde Junge” which links the young, blind beggar-veteran of this poem to themes of loss, light, and gender dynamics in Loy’s earlier Italian poems.
The final chapter, “Urban Bricoleur,” considers Loy’s often-neglected later poems. For the most part written in New York in the 1940s, these poems apply Loy’s deft but eccentric vocabulary and imagery to a deeply compassionate consideration of the city’s poor. Though too short, this section of Prescott’s book contradicts readings which paint this period of Loy’s work as bitter or resentful. Instead, Prescott convincingly argues that in these poems Loy gives “voice and attention to the people who are often unseen and usually invisible – older women, vagrants, and drunks” (171).
If a complaint is to be made about Poetic Salvage, it would be about its omissions. Though the book ends with two useful appendices—one a look at the little magazines in which Loy’s work first appears and the other a small set of holograph notes for the poem “Ova Begins to Take Notice”—it doesn’t address Loy’s sequence “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” or her prose works. Currently out of print, the semi-biographical mock-epic “Anglo-Mongrels” is, as Conover puts it in The Lost Lunar Baedeker, “probably the single most important missing feature in the landscape of the modernist long poem,” so treatment of it in a volume intended to be an introduction and reader’s guide would be immensely helpful to Loy’s readers (171). Forgoing discussion of Loy’s prose works is understandable in a volume focusing on poetry, yet it’s hard to justify omitting some discussion of works like Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto,” which is not only a riposte to the misogyny of Italian Futurism but also remains relevant today because of its linking of female agency with female sexual and reproductive freedom. And consideration of Loy’s brief critical work “Modern Poetry” would be helpful because in it she addresses not only her own linguistic style but also the relationship between that style and her experience as an immigrant; her thoughts there on the value of many voices coming together to make a new language are a useful counter-narrative to walls and xenophobia.
Such criticism aside, Prescott’s Poetic Salvage would be an excellent companion to The Lost Lundar Baedecker and would be a good choice for students or those seeking an introduction to Loy’s poetry, and its combination of biographical and material culture information has much to offering much to those already familiar with Loy. Poetic Salvage is also an excellent introduction to Loy’s vexed but fruitful relationship with Modernism, as studied at greater depth in Laura Scuriatti’s Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism (University Press of Florida 2019) and Linda A. Kinnahan’s Mina Loy, Twentieth-Century Photography, and Contemporary Women Poets (Routledge 2017).